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County To Look Into Finding A 'Happy Medium' For Heritage Tree

Margaret Hostetter
Courtesy Photo

After about a dozen public comments Thursday morning regarding the heritage oak tree, District 3 Commissioner Lumon May asked county staff to look into solutions that would allow for developers to expand the storage unit without cutting down the tree.

“People have their constitutional rights for the acquisition of property and be able to develop it,” said May, “But there has to be a happy medium somewhere in which we can resolve this without cutting down the tree because my position is to not cut down the tree.”

The centuries-old tree, measuring 85 inches in diameter, is at risk of being removed to build a three-story mini storage unit at 6155 N. Palafox. Last week, a group of concerned citizens spoke out at a development Escambia County Development Review Committee meeting before the development was approved. They’ve since created an online campaign that has collectedaround 2,500 signatures.

During Thursday’s public comments, many residents blamed a “weak” development code for approving the removal of the tree.

“This tree meets all the ideal protections standards here in Escambia County. The fact is that approving removal actually goes against your own land development code and there’s no reason this tree should be removed,” said Dianne Krumel, a former District 2 state house candidate. “Why do you write these codes when you have no intentions of enforcing them?”

The county’s Development Services Department Director Horace Jones said there was consultation with the environmental resource management department and that the development order met the requirements under the land development code.

Chips Kirschenfeld, natural resources director and deputy county administrator, said the county arborist Jimmie Jarratt evaluated the tree and confirmed it was “an 85-inch tree in good health.”

Kirschenfeld said the county did try to work on a redesign of the proposed development with a 15-20% reduction in building size to accommodate the tree.

“When I did review it, it wasn’t going to meet our minimum standard for tree preservation, so I said the design wasn’t going to work,” he said.

He added it would be “very challenging” for the development to go ahead without removing the tree since it’s a half-acre lot.

District 2 Commissioner Doug Underhill said he was “no fan” of the county’s land development code, but tried to make the point that the mini storage was not violating the county’s tree ordinance in the code.

Underhill asked county’s Senior Natural Resources Manager Tim Day “Does taking down this tree for the purpose of this development meet that ordinance or not?”

Day let out a sigh and said “yes, it does.”

Underhill said he hates to see a heritage tree removed, but argued that the tree ordinance was updated a few years ago and passed with a 5-0 vote.

“We can’t come back and revisit the ordinance every single time an issue comes up,” he said. “You’re negotiating in bad faith every time if you plan on moving the goal post again the next time it comes up.”

But Commissioners May and District 1 Commissioner Jeff Bergosh say the language leaves too much space for interpretation.

“Saying it’s absolute and putting a staff member on the spot is not right,” May said. “We look for alternative solutions for the betterment and the good of citizens and there’s nothing wrong with doing that. At this point why not look at other solutions?”

“The outcome here today is to look at policy that is maybe more cut-and-dry,” Bergosh later added. “That’s our fault — that’s on us — and sometimes language needs to be updated.”

An appeal of the mini storage development is still underway where it would go to the county Board of Adjustment for administrative appeal.

Advocates for the tree say they’re not done.

“We’ve just begun the fight,” said Margaret Hostetter. “This tree, this heritage oak tree is in imminent danger. It is the tip of the spear to save protected trees in Escambia County. It’s not only a heritage tree, it’s not only in perfect health, it’s also the largest tree on record in the county.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.